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More people now eligible for food support

Looser federal eligibility requirements for food stamps may prompt a flood of new applications locally. It certainly will increase the potential pool of those eligible, estimated at 70,000 statewide. It will also result in nearly unmanageable caseloads for financial workers becoming more so, said Hubbard County Social Services Director Daryl Bessler.

The state Department of Human Services is estimating as many as 70,000 more people could be eligible for food assistance under new rules promulgated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program.

"There are no asset restrictions for food support as of Nov. 1," said Renee Weeks, head of Hubbard County Social Service's financial assistance unit.

On Monday the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as the food stamp program, no longer will count certain assets against a recipient's eligibility. Before Monday, an individual couldn't have more than $2,000 in assets. And if a family had two vehicles, those were counted against that family, Bessler said.

But the gross income eligibility also went up, making the threshold for a family of four around $36,000 annually or less to qualify. Weeks said it's $3,032 per month.

"It went to 165 percent of federal poverty guidelines," she said. "It used to be 130 percent."

But that still will not put Hubbard County over the national poverty level. Nationally, 12.5 percent of the country's citizens receive supplemental food assistance. In Hubbard County that number is roughly 10.5 percent.

"In September (2010) Hubbard County had 1,904 people on food stamps," Weeks said. "That included 1,128 adults and caregivers and 776 children."

The new guidelines are primarily income-driven.

"My sense is that they would still look at income," Bessler said. "If you have a job, they'll look at that. Will they look at liquid assets? Maybe they're going to forgive those. If you have $50,000 in the bank and generate $500 in income for the year maybe the income will count but the asset wouldn't."

While Bessler doubts people in those upper asset ranges would actually take advantage of the food stamp program, he's troubled nonetheless about widening eligibility guidelines and the burdens they will place on financial workers.

"I don't know what to say about it," he admitted. "I see the value of it. We've been through some economic difficulties for folks now and there is a group of people that will be eligible that weren't before.

"On the other hand, how broke does the country go before it says, 'We can't do what we're doing?' I don't know."

But what Bessler sees as good about the new rules are vehicular assets. Homes have never factored into the equation of eligibility for food stamps "because you have to live somewhere," he said.

"If you had too many motor vehicles that was a problem," he said. "If you had a snowmobile and a boat, a four-wheeler, those could create problems for you. If there's more than one person working" in the family, often times rigid applications of the rules meant a working couple could not each drive to work for fear of ineligibility. One car was the limit.

Weeks said Monday the office wasn't flooded with new inquiries as expected.

"No we didn't actually, not yet anyway," she said.

Sarah Smith writes for the Park Rapids Enterprise, which is owned by Forum Communications, Co.